Tag Archives: John Wayne

Facing the Risks in the Soup Isle

We have a new understanding of where the “front lines” are right now, and they are much closer than the beaches of Normandy the Korean demilitarized zone.

A book series I edit includes two volumes of scholarly research exploring the meanings and feelings associated with the great monuments built in in Washington D.C.  Visitors usually look forward to seeing the elaborate edifices put up to honor Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others associated with the nation’s real or and sometimes imagined enemies. Most cities emulate these monuments in their own tributes, frequently featuring generals and other leaders on horseback. Statues of generals on top of a horse have become their own urban clichés.

Even so, it strikes me that all of us involved in these projects were busy cataloguing the familiar while overlooking the obvious.  In truth, scores of nameless individuals soldier on quietly doing much of the nation’s work, which can become ominously dangerous.  These men and women are often not in the sights of the hero-makers, but it’s time they were. In the time of the COVID-19 virus we have suddenly realized how much we owe our safety and perhaps our lives to nurses, doctors, sanitation workers, first responders, grocery store employees, senior-care aides, postal workers and delivery men and women.  We now have a new understanding of where the “front lines” are now, and they are much closer than the beaches of Normandy the Korean demilitarized zone.

I’ve never seen a monument to a check-out clerk from Target, an E.R. doctor in scrubs, or the employee behind the Deli counter at the local grocery store. Right now their heroism during hurricanes, natural disasters and especially this virus seems much more tangible than the tributes to individuals who have been affiliated with battle-ready organizations, but never had to consider the possible dire consequences of helping a customer. It’s interesting that the iconic actor John Wayne fought World War II and the Vietnam War only from the soundstages of Hollywood, keeping up his faux toughness with a heedless and rabid form of anti-Communism. And yet, for all of these dubious achievements he’s been honored with his name on a major American airport. Sometimes we seem to miss the greatness of people around us doing essential work.

We should have the grace to realign our thinking to more clearly honor that those who have the patience and perseverance to show up and provide help when the health and lives of Americans are in peril. They deserve our gratitude and far more recognition.

The Pervasive Symbols of Personal Reinvention


John Wayne in Born to the West, 1937   Wikipedia.org
           John Wayne in Born to the West, 1937                                                       Wikipedia.org

We use everyday garments to announce our identities in lieu of the more awkward task of trying to explain them.

The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle was not the first to notice that clothing makes its own rhetorical statements. But he was clear in noting that “coverings” can be material and well as verbal. Just as we sometimes clothe our motives in language that conceals less admirable impulses, so we use everyday garments to announce our identities in lieu of the more awkward task of trying to spell them out. For Carlyle “the first spiritual want of man is decoration.” How we choose to appear before others is perhaps the straightest line to identity. It’s little wonder that teens grappling with an awkward transformation to a more personal self would be so particular about how they appear to each other.

Concerns with clothing and appearance can last for an entire lifetime. As the New York Times notes, no one was really surprised to find an apparently expensive Christian Louboutin stiletto stuck in an escalator near the new editorial offices of Vogue at One World Trade Center. Some well-dressed employee obviously moved on without it. At best, even the most policed architecture in the city can only delay but can’t deter the mavens of high fashion.

The principle of clothing as a “statement” is only more exaggerated in the fashion world. In reality nearly all of us trade in the imagery of personal presentation.

Source: Nowness
     Ralph Lauren                                Source: Nowness

Consider three cases that exemplify the power of selected external skins to announce what we want to believe about ourselves. Designer and fashion mogul Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx 75 years ago.  Today the Lauren empire often features the short and photogenic President in clothing that has become one of his signature styles: a leather or wool-lined jacket, a western hat that looks like its been kicked around the corral a few times, hand-tooled boots and jeans. Even as a teen in the Colorado mountains I never succeeded in looking so ranch-hand cool.

And there’s the case of the iconic tamer of the West, John Wayne, born Marion Morrison in Winterset Iowa. Wayne apparently disliked horses. But nothing in his past and his Midwestern roots would deter him from becoming Director John Ford’s favorite trailblazer. The Duke achieved on film what Theodore Roosevelt constructed in his larger-than-life legacy.  He transformed himself from a sickly son of a Manhattan socialite into the “Rough Rider” who relished the possibilities of taming any country that could test his masculine prowess.

Donald Trump from Queens offers a related case that is more firmly anchored in the urban jungles of America’s biggest cities. Trump grew up into a comfortable family thriving on the business of building modest apartments and single-family homes in the Jamaica Estates area in Queens. He obviously expanded the base of the Fred Trump organization, creating a Manhattan-centered development model more suited to his ambitions as a real estate juggernaut. Though he would have us believe that he is a master-builder, a closer reading of his career suggests an aptitude for real estate marketing and self-promotion. Trump wears aggressive entrepreneurship as a badge of honor.

Trump's Name on his Chicago Building    Wikipedia.org
Trump’s Name on his Chicago Building Wikipedia.org

This mix of material accomplishment and relentless hype can be seen in a soaring Skidmore-designed building along the Chicago River. Its 20-foot tall TRUMP nameplate spanning the 16th and 17th floors is so large that one can imagine the structure listing toward the river under its weight. To be sure, the handsome 98-story structure—officially the Trump International Hotel and Tower–complements the skyline, and–unlike many–was his project from the start.  But the outsized sign mars its sleekness and feeds stories among locals of the New York vulgarian who somehow still managed to blow in, even against the stiff prairie winds from the West. The twist is that the gaudy gold and chrome skins of his buildings have become surrogates for the conservative business attire even a brash mogul has to wear.  For most of us the need for self-definition permits less flamboyance. But few of us are immune from the urge to calibrate our “look” to match our aspirations.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu